I took a look at my TBR (to-be-read) pile of published books and had a minor anxiety attack. Why, I asked myself, did my heart start palpitating with nervousness when instead my pupils should have dilated in delighted anticipation?
I thought about it and I think I have an answer.
Many of these books - 4 out of 6 of them - are about 425-450 pages long. Uh-oh. That's a really dangerous page count. I'm afraid to crack these books open because I can almost guarantee that all, or almost all, of them will be 100 pages too long.
I'm sure savvy readers are on to publishers' tricks (or should I say, techniques). If we're charging $24.95 for a hardcover (well, we're not, really; we're lucky if we see half of that from Amazon, BEFORE we pay all those shipping costs - but that's a different story), we do have to give readers something for their money. Look at any recent Janet Evanovich book: huge font size, tremendous margins, lots of space between lines (called leading in industry logo). A nice thing about really short chapters in thrillers is the fact that we can start each on a new page, leaving lots of white space. So, I admit that sometimes the page count is there to justify the price.
BUT... there's a difference between page count and word count. The books on my TBR pile are packed tight with words. They don't have lots and lots of chapters... The highest number is 21 chapters in a 444-page book. The margins are tight; the font size isn't large; there's a lot packed onto a page. This means that, rather than playing with the book design to fill the page count, the publishers had to play with the book design to fit what was likely a bloated manuscript into the page count.
And that's what makes me worry. Are these the published versions of unedited, self-indulgent manuscripts? Hence the palpitations.
Editors and agents will tell aspiring writers that a first book should be about 70,000-80,000 words. The number sounds arbitrary, but it isn't, because I (and many other editors) believe that 300 pages is about the perfect length for a mystery. Maybe a little longer, maybe a little shorter. Not 50,000 words, but certainly not 140,000.
I look at my shelf of Classic Crime and see so many wonderful books, published in the 1960s-1980s, that come in under 200 (not 300) pages. Type was tighter and smaller back then, so that explains some of the phenomenon. But those books reflect the reality that mystery fiction benefits from tight, focused writing. Such writing is essential to suspense.
Several of the books on my pile are by established writers, though I do know for a fact that one of them (by a writer I like but in whose more recent works I've been disappointed) was kicked around the industry for several years, with most publishers reluctant to take it on. I saw it, got 100 pages into it, turned it down. So why did I buy the published book? God help me, I liked the cover. The first chapter seems to be exactly as I saw it a couple of years ago. Gulp.